On 6 October, Instagram will celebrate its tenth birthday. Hattie Crisell looks back at how a simple photo-sharing app changed the world – for better and for worse.
What was your first Instagram post? Mine was a fresh-faced selfie. A 28-year-old me is peering up at the camera from my sofa. There is no caption – seemingly, I had nothing to communicate. Yet Instagram ignited an irresistible urge to share something with the world, and the world shared right back. This month, Instagram turns ten, though it’s hard to believe it’s not older. It launched as a simple photo-sharing app in October 2010, the brainchild of US software engineers Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. It quickly became a household name. When Facebook bought it for $1billion two years later, the company still only had 13 employees.
Even if you’ve never used Instagram, you can’t have escaped its impact: a billion of us are active on it each month. What happens on the ‘gram’ hits headlines, shapes global conversations and shifts the culture.
Perhaps most obviously, it has transformed the world of celebrity. Prior to Instagram, we had two ways to know famous people: via polished media appearances or the paparazzi. But today not only can I peer into the homes of the rich and famous, I can also access their thoughts. While there are some celebs who still give the app a wide berth – including the Clooneys and Kate Moss – they’re the exception. Beyoncé (154 million followers) announced her pregnancy with twins on there in 2017 with a styled, semi-nude photo; the Duke and Duchess of Sussex used the app to announce that they were stepping back from the Royal Family, apparently before they’d even broken the news to the head of the Royal Family, the Queen. Even the long-resistant Jennifer Aniston joined the app last year, racking up 11.5 million followers in her first day and briefly crashing the service. ‘Instagram has been a game changer,’ says Andrew Bloch, co-founder of PR agency Frank. ‘It’s enabled celebrities to build a relationship directly with their fans. It’s given us the chance to talk to them directly. It’s also become a great commercial opportunity: many celebrities are being paid huge sums of money to endorse brands.’ The Kardashians and their Jenner half-sisters have led this phenomenon. Last year, their ‘momager’ Kris Jenner revealed that they’re paid up to six-figure sums for every sponsored post.
And many TV shows now work the app into their marketing strategy. Watch Netflix’s smash-hit show Queer Eye and when you flick on to Instagram, the stars will be there waiting for you to click ‘follow’. On the recent series of Love Island USA, the islanders’ social-media profiles were flashed up as they were introduced.
While in 2013, Instagram nudged ‘selfie’ into the Oxford English Dictionary, last year the Merriam-Webster version added ‘influencer’ – a new species of celebrity born on the app. An influencer is a person who rises to fame via their Instagram feed – whether their area of expertise is fashion, cleaning (take a bow @mrshinchhome) or parenting.
At its worst, this has been annoying – influencers have been criticised for trying to score free holidays, or forming scrums outside other people’s picturesque houses in an attempt to get a good photo. But at its best, the app has become an empowering workplace on which to build a business. ‘We’ve seen a huge rise in female entrepreneurs who are selling directly to other women,’ says Sara Tasker, author of the Instagram guide Hashtag Authentic. ‘Many women have caring commitments or are at home with young children – so instead of trying to break through the glass ceiling, they’ve gone round the edge.’
Instagram has also changed the way we shop. Hundreds of ‘direct to consumer’ fashion brands have found success by choosing the app as their way of reaching customers.
Perhaps the most surprising development for a photo-sharing app is that it’s also become a place to share words – not just a few pithy ones, but essay-like captions that explore traumas, body confidence issues, feminist manifestos and denouncements of racism. During lockdown it also came into its own as a broadcasting space, packed with celebrities, experts and ‘normal people’ hosting debates, virtual parties and cookalongs on Instagram Live.
That’s not to say it’s all good. The Instagram decade has also been one in which a mental-health crisis has emerged. A survey of 14- to 24-year-olds in 2017 found that they rated Instagram the most damaging social-media platform in this respect. The app has subsequently introduced tools to fight cyber-bullying and weed out abusive language.
Often Instagram fights for both sides – take the body positivity movement. On pop star Lizzo’s profile I see a powerful larger woman celebrating a body type that has long been vilified. But I also see body-sculpted women in bikinis with obviously airbrushed concave stomachs. Similarly, it’s opened up new areas of our lives to scrutiny. Previously, if you wanted to show off your newly decorated living room, you’d have had to invite people over and ply them with booze. Now you can share it online. And you can make your name as a culinary marvel without anyone tasting a bite.
On a more worthy note, it’s a place for social action. From the 2014 ice bucket challenge (which raised £90 million in the UK for the Motor Neurone Disease Association) to the posting of black squares this year to support Black Lives Matter, Instagram allows people to display their values.
So what’s next? The recent addition of the video function Reels has renewed enthusiasm, and it’s notable that while the Kardashians’ reality TV show is ending, there’s no question of them abandoning their Instagram presence. And many of us are still posting our selfies and projects. Why? Because for a billion of us, Instagram is still irresistible.
Instagram’s most iconic moments
Charlotte Vossen picks the posts that made history.
Instagram launches on 6 October 2010 with co-founder Kevin Systrom’s photo of a stray dog sitting near a taco stand in Mexico. The photo-sharing app gains over 100,000 users in one week.
The Royal Family join Instagram with a photo of, from left, fashion designer Stella McCartney and sports stars Josef Craig, Nigel Murray, Alistair Brownlee and Victoria Pendleton at Buckingham Palace with their honours.
Ellen DeGeneres’s selfie at the Oscars garners almost 1.5 million likes. It includes, from left, Jennifer Lawrence, Channing Tatum, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, DeGeneres, Kevin Spacey, Bradley Cooper, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o and her brother and, just seen, Angelina Jolie.
Millions of users, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Cara Delevingne and Jennifer Lopez post videos of themselves doing the Ice Bucket Challenge – basically pouring freezing-cold water over their head – to raise money for charity and nominate others to do the same. In the UK over £90 million is raised for the Motor Neurone Disease Association.
David Beckham joins Instagram on his 40th birthday with a shirtless selfie in bed. Today he holds the top spot for the highest-ranking British celebrity on the app with a whopping 64.4 million followers.
Sharing a photo of her first Vanity Fair cover as a woman, former Olympian athlete and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner also announces her new name after transitioning.
After launching their account @kensingtonroyal in 2015, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge celebrate one million followers.
It takes Beyoncé just eight hours to set the record for most-liked photo as the singer reveals she and her husband Jay-Z are expecting twins with an extravagant shot of her in a lingerie set and green veil surrounded by flowers.
A year later, Kylie Jenner announces the arrival of her daughter, Stormi Webster, with an Instagram post that breaks Beyoncé’s most-liked photo record.
@world_record_egg breaks Kylie Jenner’s record by posting a photo of an egg. With 54.7 million likes, it’s the most-liked picture on Instagram to date.
Instagram feeds are full of the 10 Year Challenge trend. Stars such as Reese Witherspoon (above), Kate Beckinsale and Kate Hudson join other users in sharing side-by-side photos of themselves in 2009 and 2019 to show if they’ve changed (or rather boast that they haven’t) over the past decade.
The Queen writes her first-ever Instagram post after visiting the Science Museum in London and discovering a letter from the Royal Archives, written in 1843 to her great-great-grandfather Prince Albert. To mark the momentous occasion, Royal aids post a video of the Queen uploading it on her iPad.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex announce the name of their son with a photo of them introducing Archie to the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh. This sweet portrait racks up almost three million likes and is the most popular post from any of the Royals.
The Cambridges share an adorable shot of Prince George and Princess Charlotte at Kensington Palace to mark Charlotte’s first day at school.
With her first post, a selfie of her and the other Friends stars, Jennifer Aniston sets a new record for getting one million followers in just five hours and 16 minutes.
Account @influencersinthewild launches and rakes in 3.5 million followers with its crazy behind-the-scenes photos exposing the length influencers go to in order to get the perfect shot.
Harry and Meghan catch the Palace off guard by announcing on Instagram their plans to step back as senior members of the Royal Family.
While we were all in lockdown, a 5km running challenge endorsed by celebrities such as Ellie Goulding (above), Jessie Ware and Princess Eugenie raises millions of pounds for the NHS. Originally launched as Run for Heroes, the campaign calls on people across the UK to walk or run 5km, donate £5 to the NHS and tag five friends to do the same.
The Royal Family share the news that Princess Beatrice and Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi have tied the knot in secret in a private ceremony at the Royal Chapel of All Saints in Windsor, after the couple had to cancel their wedding service due to coronavirus.
The family of Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman release a statement on Instagram to announce the actor has passed away from colon cancer. With almost 19 million likes, it’s the third highest-ranking post on the app.